The Red Hill by David Penny

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The Red Hill (Thomas Berrington Historical Mystery Book 1) is written by David Penny and is set in the final years of Moorish Spain. This is a bit darker than a cozy mystery but it is spell-binding and kept my rapt attention.

A killer who can’t be stopped. A request that can’t be refused. Moorish Spain, 1482. Englishman and physician Thomas Berrington is an unwilling friend to the Sultan of Granada, the most powerful man in the kingdom of al-Andalus. When bodies start to turn up in the palace, each showing marks of a savage attack, Thomas is asked to investigate. At first reluctant, Thomas is drawn deeper into the investigation when one of the Sultan’s wives is brutally murdered. The physician must team up with the eunuch Jorge to find the killer before they become his next victims. As they investigate, they find that nothing is as it seems and no-one can be trusted. Al-Hamra, the red hill, and its inhabitants hold their secrets close. As Thomas begins to lay them bare his discoveries culminate in a battle not only for his own life, but for the lives of those he loves. (Amazon.com)

I wished there were more hours in the day when I started this novel. I really wanted to get to the end, not because I wanted to be finished with the story but because I desperately wanted to know who did it. There were many credible suspects, each moving up and down my list as possible motivations and repercussions were revealed. I think my favourite thing about this book, however, was characterization.

Thomas is indisputably well-written. Throughout the first third of the book, I wondered if I even liked him, although I was rooting for him. His past shapes him in ways the reader will only grasp as his layers are unpeeled throughout the novel. Hints of his violent past are whispered across the pages, revealed only when circumstances demand a fierce display. He does not willing share his story. His interactions with the female characters, particularly Lubna, Prea and even Helena expose a softer side he would also prefer hidden. The ajami, as he known, is skilled but private.

The handsome and beloved eunuch Jorge is the quintessential sidekick. Where Thomas is gruff, he is charming. Where Thomas is uncaring, he is sympathetic. When Thomas is plagued by self-doubt, he is his advocate. Jorge is the voice of humanity, and Thomas needs him to hold on to his. Jorge, however, is a well-developed character in his own right and goes through his own pursuit of truth and self-realization.

The palace intrigue is intense. The slightest error or a perception of insult could result in death. Thomas and Jorge find their investigation hindered by religious, cultural and political accoutrements. A foreign surgeon and a palace eunuch must know their places, even when tasked by the Sultan to find a murderer. This story gripped my attention even while I happily lost myself in 15th century Moorish Spain, exploring the world described by David Penny.

Fun fact I learnt (and verified) from reading this book: The Spaniards of the time (and indeed to some extent up to the 19th century) held the acting of bathing in such contempt as to ridicule and vilify the Moors for their frequent ablutions.

Some things I liked:
• The city of Gharnatah (Granada) is beautifully written. The descriptions pulsate with life. From the luxuries of the palace to the despair of the back streets, a rich tapestry of the Moorish city is woven.
• Characterizations are well-done. All major players are fully drawn, strengths, weaknesses and relevant histories appropriately exposed.
• The author is able to introduce a multitude of supporting cast but still gives each a unique identity.
• The women of the Harem are shown as powerful and clever rather than as weak victims or playthings of a Sultan.
• The history lessons knitted into the tale never take away from the flow of the story.

What I didn’t like:
• Can’t say there was anything I didn’t like.  While I personally may have wished for certain threads to have wrapped up differently, the author’s vision was spot on to uphold the authenticity of the story.

The Red Hill is a great read. David Penny is a very talented author. As soon as I get through the many cozies I’ve lined up since finishing this novel, I’ll get on to the second part of this historical mystery series.

Rating: 5/5

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